By Melanie Stegner

The County State Aid Highway 17 reconstruction project continued its journey to fruition. 

A public hearing was held during the Pope County Commissioners’ committee of the whole meeting last week. The purpose of the meeting was for Brian Giese, Pope County Engineer, to present information regarding impacts on vegetation per the currently planned project on South Lakeshore Drive, specifically to address the removal of trees and hedges along the road and why it will be necessary. The hearing was also held to gather input and comment from the public regarding the matter. 

Notice was sent to landowners regarding the removal of roughly 70 trees along the corridor. According to Giese, only 30-40 of the trees will possibly be affected. The landowners were provided notice if they had trees within 33 feet of the center of the roadway. “We have some flexibility to slide the road depending on circumstances, but our default is to follow existing center of road,” said Giese.

The current plan illustrates a compromise between officials and residents and depends on approval of a variance request from the Minnesota Department of Transportation.  If the variance is not approved and landowners cannot come to an agreement, the project will have to move forward with state requirements, which means trees within 20 feet of the edge of the existing road would need to be removed, upping the count to 170 trees.

The removal of the trees is a double-edged sword. Residents are unhappy about the removal and concerned for safety and the highway department is unhappy about the removal and concerned for safety. According to MNDoT, the removal of trees and hedges provides a larger field of vision for the driver and does not impede the visibility of signage. “With the trees gone, people will see kids in the yards playing and pedestrians will see the cars coming,” mentioned Giese.

The good news is that many residents will be able to keep trees simply by trimming what overhangs the road to allow for better access for emergency and responding vehicles, including fire trucks and snowplows. Those trees that are expected to be removed will be replaced in another area of the landowner’s property.

Through this process, residents of the road have expressed concerns over safety of pedestrians and bicyclists as well as the speed of vehicles passing through, but with the pushback from the neighborhood, the highway department has been working with residents to come to a beneficial solution for everyone. 

“If this variance is approved, we would set forth an alignment for preliminary design layout around September or October. The contract for cutting trees at ground level would happen over the winter, starting in November or December with completion by February. Stump removal would happen after Labor Day of 2023. If the variance is not passed, we will have to go back to the drawing board as what is required by statute is considerably wider than what is proposed or it would need to be done with no state aid and the engineer would be liable for any issues,” said Giese. “This road needs reconstruction. A maintenance project will just prolong the agony and the impact both financially and physically will be greater than it is today.”

Several landowners showed up for the public hearing with different perspectives of the project. The Baycrest homeowner’s association president, Karna Peters, was present to provide comment. “We held a meeting of the HOA last night. We are concerned about traffic speeds. People speed up at the Baycrest area as the road widens. We support any traffic calming measures such as flashing lights and traffic tables. We feel that this isn’t the right design for this area as it’s residential.”

Many of the landowners expressed which trees they would prefer to keep if given a choice, choosing the trees on the cabin side in most cases. 

In the case of Kesha Anderson, who lives on Lakeshore Drive, she has other concerns. “The way that the drawing that was sent shows that the road would not be too far off my front step. How much yard would I lose? I appreciate the replacement of trees that will need to come down and would like to reiterate the notion to try not to get too close to my front step. I do not think the speed will change with the trees removed,” she said.

“I’ve had reports that cars are too fast and too slow and will probably continue to get those whether there are trees or not. If speed is the primary concern, we need to put in the curb and gutter, but that construction was shot down as it leaves a wider footprint. This alternative is still maintaining what landowners prefer. I understand everyone wants people to drive 15 miles per hour, but it’s not a reality. So, the question becomes, how do we make it most safe at the speed posted?” said Giese.

“I’m disappointed about the speed table not being allowed. A lot of the area along my property at Peter’s Resort is 18 feet wide. I have thousands of guests come during the summer, they’ve seen the yellow ribbons on the trees and know what is going on. There is not much room on the lake side, so how do you prevent ice heaving and protect from the next high-water event? I’ve had guests tell me If this happens, we’re not coming back,” said David Peters. 

Bill Peters, the third generation operator of Peters Sunset Resort, said, “We’d like the road as it is and have seen the comings and goings, but it’s a historical drive and a beautiful drive. If you did a mill and fill or overlay on the road on the same blueprint it would serve all of us on the highway who pay our taxes. Speed is going to increase and it’s more dangerous.”

“I’ve been on the lake for 74 years, the small corridor with hedges on the lake side, who is protecting the lake once the hedges go out? I can imagine someone watching a boat and driving right into the lake. Where is the ice going to go? The other side of the road causes home issues up the wazoo. You pay your taxes for 70 years. I love the look of present, but the hedges need to be revisited,” stated Kevin Perrizo. “Everyone’s worried about the cabins, which I understand, but what about the lake?”

A draft resolution was presented to the board following the closure of the public hearing that will be discussed further at the next board meeting on June 21. The state variance committee will not have a decision until June 23.